Welcome to our next NDPR Forum, on Suzy Killmister’s book Taking the Measure of Autonomy: A Four-Dimensional Theory of Self-Governance. It was recently reviewed in NDPR by Ben Mitchell-Yellin. Below the fold are a few blurbs about the book and passages from the review. Please feel free to join in on the discussion!
From the book jacket: “This book takes a radically different approach to the concept of autonomy. Killmister defends a theory of autonomy that is four-dimensional and constituted by what she calls ‘self-definition,’ ‘self-realisation,’ ‘self-unification,’ and ‘self-constitution.’ While sufficiently complex to inform a full range of social applications, this four-dimensional theory is nonetheless unified through the simple idea that autonomy can be understood in terms of self-governance. The ‘self’ of self-governance occupies two distinct roles: the role of ‘personal identity’ and the role of ‘practical agency.’ In each of these roles, the self is responsible for both taking on, and then honouring, a wide range of commitments. One of the key benefits of this theory is that it provides a much richer measure not just of how autonomous an agent is, but also the shape—or degree—of her autonomy. Taking the Measure of Autonomy will be of keen interest to professional philosophers and students across social philosophy, political philosophy, ethics, and action theory who are working on autonomy.”
From Mitchell-Yellin’s review: “This ambitious book cuts against the grain. Killmister lays out a framework for thinking about autonomy that eschews the received view in many quarters. Difficulty reconciling the various uses to which “autonomy” is put has led to calls for a moratorium on our use of the term. Killmister demurs. Good for her. Her view centers on the idea that there are several dimensions to autonomy, and while they are related, one may fall short in one but not the others. The result is a nuanced theory of autonomy that illuminates how the concept applies in a range of domains and to a range of agents.
I am intrigued by the idea that our capacity to be autonomous in some way grounds a commitment to being autonomous. Perhaps it’s a rational or moral commitment, as opposed to an agential one. I don’t know. It’s difficult to make out the argument for this claim. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Indeed, those of us who agree with Killmister that we shouldn’t abandon talk of autonomy should want something to say here. Many philosophers seem persuaded that talk of autonomy can be helpfully replaced by talk of the various other concepts that autonomy is supposed to be bound up with. Forget autonomy and focus, instead, on moral responsibility, respect, etc. on their own terms. It would help to counter this line of thought if we had something to say about our commitment to the importance of autonomy itself.
Killmister’s book helpfully lays out a framework for thinking about autonomy, and one of its real virtues is that it helps us to see the many ways that autonomy is bound up with other things we care about, both in the agential and political spheres. But that is not enough to stave off the prevailing headwinds. There is a sense in which the case of the agent who gave up her status as autonomous is a stand-in for the philosopher who gave up her interest in the concept of autonomy. Puzzling out what to say about the former’s mistake seems a nice way of puzzling out what to say about the latter’s.”1